Anne, the “Weekend Fisher,” whose posts are always thoughtful and thought-provoking, has some fascinating questions on her blog about the Holy Trinity. I commend her for posting them. If you aren’t Orthodox, you really need to ask these questions she poses:
1. Seeking to know "God in Himself" may be misguided. Do we know anything definitive about God in Himself? Did God choose to be known in that way or remain that way?
2. Speaking of "God in Himself", do we actually know whether the Son and the Spirit, apart from creation, were meaningfully distinct from the Father?
3. The phrase "God in three persons" has at least the potential to be misleading, even given the changes in language and meaning over time. To what extent is it possible to complete the phrase "God in three ______" (insert noun) without obscuring the unity of God or obscuring the origins of Son and Spirit from the Father or obscuring the differences between Father, Son, and Spirit? To be sure, additional explanations have been added and the phrase does not stand alone. But have the additional explanations been adequate? If not, then filling in that blank is not a helpful move and may be an unhelpful move.
4. When we call the Holy Spirit a "person" (even granted the shifts in the meaning of words over the different times and languages involved), does considering the Spirit as Person prevent us from considering the Spirit as Spirit? Is Spirit in a different category than Person, so that a Spirit belongs to a Person (in the more modern sense at this point) and is rightly known as the Spirit of that Person? When we consider the Holy Spirit as Person do we lose sight of the Spirit as the Spirit of God?
5. I consider it likely that the Son (the Word of God, the Christ) is an intermediary not only in his role but also in his essential nature.
Here’s how it looks from the Orthodox side:
1. God cannot be known as He is in Himself; or, in Orthodox parlance, cannot be known in His Essence (Being). We have no clue what God’s Essence is. We know a few things about it, such as that it is eternal and that it is shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but what that is, which is eternal and is shared by the Three, we do not know.
This is not due to any choice God made. It’s due just to His being that way inherently. He is inherently infinite, eternal, unspeakable, beyond comprehension, beyond speech or thought, dwelling “in light inaccessible”. It isn't because we aren't smart enough to figure out God, although that is also true; it's because to know God's Being, one would have to be God.
We can know God, though, insofar as God is as God does. We can know His love, His will, His knowledge, His creativity, His goodness, and all the other characteristics of what He does. What God does is just as truly and fully God as what God is. More accurately, His Powers are fully as divine as His Essence.
Above all, we can see Jesus, the perfect “imprint” of God, (Hebrews 12:3), "the brightness of God’s glory."
2. Who God Is, of course, is only manifest in the creation; otherwise there is nobody to whom He can be manifest, and nothing through or by which He could manifest Himself. But yes, Son and Holy Spirit were “meaningfully distinct from the Father” before God created anything. They belong to the category of Who God Is, while Creation belongs to the category of What God Does. The Son and the Holy Spirit were already, from eternity, other “Persons”, other centers of awareness, of freedom, of goodness, of truth, and already in relationship with each other. We say of the Son (Nicene Creed), eternally begotten "before all the ages."
3. The phrase “God in three persons” is distinctively Western. The Orthodox say it the other way around: Three Persons in one God. We begin with the Three because we begin with concrete experience (revelation in history) and historically, the Church encountered Three concrete Persons, not One mysterious, nebulous Essence. It’s the Three we were given to deal with, and for us the theological problem is how to explain that in the Church's experience of these Three, we still discover and know only One God.
This is vastly more important than it appears at first blush, because it turns out to be the difference between two whole theologies, the one built upon what for us must remain an abstraction (Essence) and the other built upon revelation, upon "that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled." (I John 1:1)
The Greek term, “Hypostasis” helps us. It isn’t really “person” but “subsistence.” Much as a biologist might say, “The genus Hyperflatulosoma subsists in three species, namely, H. optima, H. maxima, and H. minima,” we can say God subsists in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Okay, so no biologist would say that, because I invented the names, but you get the point, don’t you?) "Hypostasis" is a term that, unlike “person,” does seem to wear well with time.
4. Spirit is the very essence of what a person is. A man’s spirit is his deepest, innermost self; all the rest is outgrowth of that in the material world, or appendage. (Usually, these days, we in the West are scarcely able to discern our own spirits, so identified and preoccupied are we with body and mind. To rediscover our own spirit can be an exhilarating, if sometimes puzzling, adventure for a person en route to Orthodoxy!)
5. God the Son is in every way equal to God the Father, except as to origin. (While the Father is unoriginate, the Son has His timeless, eternal origin from the Father.) The Son is, in His own Being, a Person (or Hypostasis), not a function. Not an intermediary.
Ditto, the Holy Spirit: a Person, not to be reduced to a function. Not, for example, the love between the Father and the Son.
These questions are wonderful examples of issues that simply do not (and cannot) appear in Orthodoxy. That’s because they are based upon premises foreign to Orthodoxy. A solid Orthodox Christian anthropology, plus appreciating the distinction between God’s Essence and His Energy, plus a firm rejection of that error called Filioque, will together keep such issues as these from arising.